Under normal conditions, hypoxia-inducible factors, or HIFs, allow the body’s cells to thrive in low-oxygen environments, such as high altitudes. By responding to changes in oxygen levels, HIFs serve as master regulators, determining whether multiple genes that help healthy cells survive and reproduce are activated downstream. But this mechanism also promotes growth and survival of cancer cells.
HIFs accumulate and drive these other genes when the von Hippel-Lindau (VHL) gene—normally a tumor suppressor that breaks HIFs down—is inactivated. This loss of VHL leads to the most common type of kidney cancer, renal clear cell carcinoma.
At UT Southwestern, fundamental studies into one type of HIF, called HIF-2, have blossomed into a promising potential treatment.